In statehouses, women strategize about next steps for addressing sexual misconduct
Women in power are assessing the new environment and using their authority to influence laws, support the candidacies of more women, and question current standards.
When Samantha Corbin first called out the culture of sexual harassment in Sacramento, she figured it would get a response.
After all, the open letter – which described the lewd jokes, gropes, and threats that women in the California Capitol lived with every day – was signed by 140 female legislators, staff, and political consultants. Ms. Corbin didn’t expect the hundreds of survivor stories from across the country that have since poured into her inbox and clogged her office phone line.
But the deluge made sense, she says: The letter came out just as the Harvey Weinstein story was leading to allegations against powerful men across industries, and the “Me Too” movement began cresting in social media.
What did surprise her was how so many of those who reached out went on to ask: Now what?
“We’ve heard from women in other industries: medical, hotel, farm workers, Hollywood. They say to us, ‘You write the laws. What are we doing next?’ ” says Corbin, a lobbyist and former staffer for the state Assembly. “We quickly realized there is a burden on us specifically to lead the charge in terms of recrafting public policy.”
Women leaders have an opportunity to leverage their unique position to dismantle harassment culture long term, observers say. Already those in Congress are pushing for legislation that addresses issues of transparency around harassment claims on Capitol Hill.
But there’s plenty to do at the state level, too. In Sacramento – as in state capitols across the country – women leaders are crafting laws that take into account survivors’ experiences, opening more avenues for women to run for office, and questioning the standards for law, order, and decency that they and their colleagues set for their constituencies.
“Our ability to get it right in the statehouse has a direct impact on our ability to craft broader policy to help women, minorities, and individuals who are most vulnerable,” Corbin says.
Following the release of Corbin’s letter in mid-October, the California state Senate hired a pair of outside law firms to investigate allegations of widespread harassment and review the Senate’s policies on discrimination and retaliation. The state Assembly is also set to begin hearings on Nov. 28 around its sexual harassment guidelines – one of the first to do so. This week, one member of the California legislature resigned and another was removed from leadership roles as the result of sexual misconduct allegations.
Addressing power imbalances
Women lawmakers from both houses say they support the initial steps the Legislature is taking to address harassment. But some also point out that effective action means looking at the underlying power imbalances and including victims’ experiences in the policy conversation. When staff members come to her with stories of harassment, for instance, Rep. Catharine Baker (R) of San Ramon wants to know that she can take the case to a third party that can guarantee confidentiality, non-retaliation, and a nonpartisan investigation.
“I’m not convinced hiring an outside law firm will do the trick,” Assemblywoman Baker says. “We need to take a different look at how we’re going to ensure independence.”
Similar discussions are taking place in statehouses across the country. States such as Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin have all launched efforts to reexamine their Legislatures’ sexual harassment policies. Along with the legislator in California, state lawmakers in Minnesota and Kentucky have announced plans to resign in the face of accusations of harassment and groping.
Still, ensuring that the next steps will have a lasting effect against harassment culture will require women in politics to continue to speak out and bring their experiences to bear, observers say.
“The legislating can get a process set up … and a set of real repercussions to come with this sort of behavior,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “But women who have power and agency and have a voice also need to be talking about these issues so that it empowers women in those institutions. It’s a whole culture and rules shift.”
Complications moving forward
The way forward is fraught with complications. In working to develop policy solutions, Corbin and her colleagues – whose open letter led to the founding of the nonprofit We Said Enough earlier this month – quickly found that while harassment pervades almost all industries, policies will need to be tailored to the specific communities being addressed.
“There are similar stories, but there are different power pressures at play, different cultural dynamics,” Corbin says. “We need data, best practices, to make sure that the interventions [we employ] are actually effective.”
A climate of intense political polarization doesn’t help, either. The partisan wrangling over the sexual misconduct cases of Senate candidate Roy Moore (R) of Alabama and Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota demonstrate that some politicians and voters are willing to look the other way in the name of party politics. And some worry that one wrong step on the part of those making allegations – a false accusation or an accuser’s unsavory past – could put women right back on the defensive.
“What happens when it’s impossible to make a case, or make it compellingly? Or what if the man doesn’t admit it at all?” asks Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington. “Are we going to regress to the same kind of behavior we’ve seen in the past, where we put the woman on trial?”
There is, however, a sense of having come too far to turn back. Many women lawmakers, having now spoken out, have committed to creating and maintaining an environment where others can speak up. “I put up with comments I probably shouldn’t have and I helped perpetuate that culture,” says Sen. Connie Leyva (D) of Chino, who spent years as a labor activist before getting elected to the California state Senate in 2014. “I need to help the women coming up after me be better than I am.”
Indeed, another key part of the conversation are the women who are aspiring to elected office. Statehouses and city halls saw a surge in female candidates this year. And as of November, nearly 400 women have identified as potential candidates for Congress in 2018 – about double the number this time in 2015.
“Our generation of women has a recognition at this point that we have the opportunity and the ability to stand up against this culture,” says Katie Hill, a political newcomer and one of six Democrats targeting Republican incumbent Steve Knight’s seat for California’s 25th congressional district. Ms. Hill, who at 16 was stalked by a teaching assistant at her high school, says she draws from her own experience when she champions educating students early on about harassment and the nature of consent.
The We Said Enough initiative, while still soliciting stories to get a sense of scope, is also establishing an advisory board made up of a variety of stakeholders to determine what policies work for which industries and community groups. They’re also reaching out to other statehouses and consulting on the kind of interventions that are “fair to both the accused and accusers,” Corbin says. And they plan to commission research into the prevalence of sexual harassment so that new policies can be guided by data.
“We want to ensure that this isn’t a moment but a movement,” Corbin says. “We’re building for long term solutions.”
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct age of Katie Hill when she was harassed in high school.